The West Coast Could Soon Get Its First Offshore Wind Farm

CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

The country's first floating wind turbine off the coast of Castine, Maine.

A Seattle wind company has gotten the go-ahead to develop plans for a 30-megawatt offshore wind pilot project off of Oregon’s Coos Bay, officials announced this week.

The project, developed by Principle Power, would employ five floating wind turbines about 15 miles off the coast of Oregon. Floating turbine technology has not been developed very much in U.S. before, but because the West Coast’s narrow continental shelf drops off more steeply than it does on the East Coast, wind turbines off the coast of Oregon can’t be anchored in the seabed. Once Principle Power submits its plans for the wind farm to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, that agency will do an environmental analysis of the proposed project and gather public comments before making its decision on whether or not to approve it.

“This pioneering project would demonstrate floating wind turbine technology capable of tapping the rich wind energy resources in deep waters offshore Oregon,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “As we look to broaden our nation’s energy portfolio, the innovative technology and its future application hold great promise along the West Coast and Hawaii.”

Jewell said that, because the U.S. is new to the floating wind turbine technology, the country will need to examine how these projects interact with the marine ecosystem and fishing industry. Last year, the University of Maine tested a floating wind turbine, and for the first time, the technology provided electricity to the U.S. power grid. The University of Maine and two partner companies were approved last month to construct a to construct two-turbine, 12-megawatt floating wind project. Other than this test project, the U.S. does not yet have a single offshore wind installation.

Principle Power received $4 million in Department of Energy funding in 2012, and if the Coos Bay project is a success, it could be selected for more funding.

Though this project would be the first offshore wind farm off the West Coast, several wind farms are in the works off the East Coast — though none have been completed yet. In December, the Interior Department announced that it would be auctioning off 80,000 acres off of the coast of Maryland for commercial wind energy leasing. If that area is fully developed, it could house 850 to 1,450 megawatts of wind energy, generating enough to power about 300,000 homes. In Nantucket Sound, a wind company has been given the go-ahead to install 130 wind turbines, which under average winds could provide Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket with 75 percent of their power needs. Rhode Island-based wind company Deepwater Wind is also planning a five-turbine installation off the coast of Rhode Island, a project the company says could power 17,000 homes.

Europe has long been a leader in offshore wind energy generation, and at the end of 2012, the EU countries combined had the highest overall installed wind power capacity in the world. The U.S. and China, however, are slowly catching up with Europe, as a new report from Climate Strategies shows. In 2012, 70 percent of new wind power was installed outside of Europe, with the U.S. and China each accounting for 29 percent of new wind power installation.